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Archive for November 2nd, 2008

Will service robots replace service dogs?

It’s not exactly huggable, but researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have engineered a robot that they say can perform all the duties of service dogs, and more.

“Service dogs have a great history of helping people, but there’s a multi-year waiting list. It’s a very expensive thing to have. We think robots will eventually help to meet those needs,” said Professor Charlie Kemp, of the Georgia Tech Department of Biomedical Engineering.

They could also be cheaper, Kemp says, costing a fraction of the $16,000 it takes, on average, to breed and train a service dog.

And, even better, it can do all that without getting distracted by food, seeking affection or relieving itself.

At 5 feet, 7 inches, with wheels and prongs instead of paws and a tail, “El-E” (pronounced “Ellie”) doesn’t look anything like a real dog, smell anything like a real dog, or act anything like a real dog.

But the focus of the project is to duplicate the helpful physical actions of service dogs, such as opening doors, drawers and retrieving medication — not the emotional support they bring (at no added charge) to their owners.

Kemp presented his findings this week at the second IEEE/RAS-EMBS International Conference on Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics – BioRob 2008 – in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The robot service dog responds to verbal commands, issued in conjunction with use of a laser pointer. If a person needs an item fetched, that individual would issue a command and aim a laser pointer at the desired item.

Kemp and graduate student Hai Nguyen worked closely with the team of trainers at Georgia Canines for Independence (GCI) in Acworth, Ga. to research the interaction between individuals and service dogs, according to a report in Science Daily.

“The waiting list for dogs can be five to seven years,” said Ramona Nichols, executive director of Georgia Canines for Independence. “It’s neat to see science happening but with a bigger cause; applying the knowledge and experience we have and really making a difference. I’m so impressed. It’s going to revolutionize our industry in helping people with disabilities.”

In total, the robot was able to replicate 10 tasks and commands taught to service dogs at GCI – including opening drawers and doors, according to the Science Daily article. Other successes included opening a microwave oven, delivering an object and placing an item on a table.

“As robotic researchers we shouldn’t just be looking at the human as an example,” Kemp said. “Dogs are very capable at what they do. They have helped thousands of people throughout the years. I believe we’re going to be able to achieve the capabilities of a service dog sooner than those of a human caregiver.”

Kemp got started on the project after his wife brought home an energetic goldendoodle named Daisy about a year and a half ago.

Ultimately, Kemp and co-researchers plan to train El-E to do things not even highly skilled service dogs can do, such as dial a cellphone for help or relay information about its companion’s condition to a doctor.

“A lot of people have looked at robot dogs for entertainment and companionship,” Kemp said. “But we said, ‘Hey, what about looking at this in terms of physical assistance?'”